The Stoic philosopher Epictetus talked a lot about the importance of differentiating between what was inside of our control, and what was outside of our control. He had a very limited view of what was inside of our control—basically our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Everything else was outside our control. He called these things “externals.”
Epictetus said that we often have it backwards. We spend a lot of time and energy worrying about things that are outside of our control—money, possessions, our bodies, the other people in our lives, and when we will die. But the things we do have full control over—our character, our perceptions, and our actions—we don’t spend a lot of time considering these things. We just do whatever feels right in the moment.
One critique of Epictetus’ view is that to fully “let go” of externals, you would have to isolate yourself from relationships and the world at large. After all, how could you have a wife and family, engage in the community, and NOT worry?
Here is Epictetus’ response: And just so you don’t think I chose as my exemplar of freedom someone unencumbered by wife, children, friends, relatives, and the demands of citizenship, factors that could make one bend and compromise, take for consideration Socrates, who had both wife and children, but as if they were on loan.
On loan. I think this is an excellent concept when thinking about how to engage with externals—those things in our lives that are outside of our control. Do you want to get married and have a family? Great, go for it. But remember that God (or the universe) doesn’t owe you a long, comfortable life with your beloved. Do you have a good job that makes you a decent salary? Great, decorate your house and plant flowers in your front yard. But don’t become attached to these things–they are outside your control. Want to live a long life? Awesome, do your best to eat your vegetables and exercise. But don’t worry too much about death—it’s not in your control.